Active shooter training a priority for Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies in the county, chief deputy tells County Commission

Both Sheriff’s Office and Sarasota Police Department focus on taking whatever steps necessary to stop an incident as fast as possible, regardless of jurisdiction

This is a slide in the Sheriff’s Office 2023 fiscal year budget presentation to the County Commission. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

From 2020 to 2021, active shooter situations in the United States climbed 52%, Sarasota County Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman told the County Commission last week.

“Any law enforcement officer in America today that doesn’t go to sleep at night and worry about this problem is not engaged,” he added during his June 23 presentation to the commissioners.

Not only were the sheriff and his senior staff members addressing their proposed budget for the next fiscal year — which will begin on Oct. 1 — but they also were taking an opportunity to provide the commissioners updates on a variety of issues with which the Sheriff’s Office contends. Hoffman noted that Sheriff’s Office personnel do not appear that often before the commissioners, so the annual budget presentation is a good time to have a general discussion of law enforcement topics.

The Sheriff’s Office holds active shooter training sessions twice a year, Col. Brian Woodring, the chief deputy, told the commissioners. “We make it as realistic as possible.”

All law enforcement agencies in the county — including the Sarasota County School District’s police officers — are invited to participate, Woodring explained, along with members of the Sarasota County Fire Department and representatives of state and federal law enforcement agencies in the area, including the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “We make sure we utilize the same equipment that would be available to these deputies and officers [at an incident],” Woodring added.

The training involves shots fired, 911 Dispatch calls on radios and even “silhouetted children,” Hoffman said.

Col. Brian Woodring addresses the commissioners on June 23. News Leader image

Underscoring the need for the training, Woodring pointed out, “Threat assessments are real. … They happen more frequently than most people know. We deal with threat assessments on a daily basis.”

After the June shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 students and two teachers died, Woodring continued, “We actually dealt with a series of threats here in Sarasota,” including one at University Town Center near Benderson Park. “That involved a lot of investigations, a lot of documents,” along with much surveillance and numerous interviews, adding up to a considerable number of man-hours, he noted. “I’m happy to say there was no real threat.”

Nonetheless, Hoffman emphasized, “You’ve got to … get on scene. … You’ve got to do your due diligence.”

After the 2018 shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Woodring said, he believed the Sheriff’s Office dealt with more than 40 threats of a copycat nature. Each had to be investigated, he added, which was “very labor-intensive.”

“[At] 2, 3, 4 o’clock in the morning,” Hoffman pointed out, “we’re knocking on the doors before those kids get up and go to school. You can’t wait to meet them at the front entrance to the school.”

Sheriff’s Office personnel conducted surveillance and follow-up activities, Hoffman said, to provide as much of a comfort level as possible to residents in regard to “folks just out there shooting their mouths off on social media or sending threatening emails … A lot of these things don’t turn into criminal activity.”

“There is a significant amount of money in this [2023 fiscal year] budget directed to the training, the equipment and, finally, the operational needs — pulling [Sheriff’s Office personnel] off the road and doing this training,” Hoffman explained. “It’s something that weighs heavily on my mind.”

Even before the Uvalde shooting, he said, he and Woodring had planned on including a slide in their June 23 presentation about active shooter training.

Resources and jurisdiction

Commissioner Christian Ziegler told the Sheriff’s Office representatives that he recalled much discussion a few years ago about responses to active shooter situations, before the Sarasota County School Board decided to create its own police department.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler participates in the June 23 workshop. News Leader image

“I think you guys are the experts when it comes to law enforcement in the county,” Ziegler continued, adding that he wanted to ensure that the Sheriff’s Office has all the resources it needs. “The sheriff’s offices — and rightfully so — should be the gold standard in the communities, and I believe you guys are,” Ziegler added.

Still, Ziegler acknowledged, “I know you’re limited in terms of your jurisdiction or your oversight.”
“We are,” Hoffman replied.

Nonetheless, in response to a Sarasota News Leader request about jurisdiction if a shooting were to occur at a Sarasota County school in an unincorporated area of the county, the Sheriff’s Office provided the following statement: “The Sheriff is the Chief law enforcement officer in the county and, as such, can implement jurisdictional authority countywide. If an active shooter situation occurred on a school campus, our mission is to neutralize the threat and preserve human life. We would work with our local municipalities, in a unified command, for mission success. If we arrived and witnessed anything inconsistent with our policy to immediately engage and neutralize the threat to our children, our deputies, by order of the Sheriff, can and would be directed to take over the scene and stop the shooter. By having jurisdiction countywide, we would not be mandated to follow the directions of any entity besides our own. Our policies are clear and are not controlled by any other law enforcement agency.”

The News Leader posed a similar question to the Sarasota Police Department (SPD).

Genevieve Judge, the SPD’s public information officer, replied in a June 27 email: “[T]he Sarasota County Schools Police Department would be the initial responding agency, based on their responsibilities and by nature of their assignment. To address the question, if SCSPD failed to take appropriate action, they would not dictate our response or influence our obligation to take appropriate action. However,” she continued, “from the close relationship formed since the inception of SCSPD, we’re confident in stating their training and emphasis on the prioritization of innocent life aligns with SPD. Ultimately, the investigation would be the Sarasota Police Department.”

This is the exterior of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde after the shooting that left 21 people dead. Photo by VOA via Wikimedia Commons

During the Uvalde incident, enough armed police officers wearing body armor were present to stop the shooting at Robb Elementary School 3 minutes after it began, Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, told a Texas Senate committee, as reported by National Public Radio (NPR). “But instead, it took an hour and 14 minutes from when officers arrived at the school to when they breached the door and ended the standoff with the gunman,” NPR added.

“McCraw criticized the on-scene commander for waiting to confront the shooter rather than breaching the classroom where he was hiding as soon as possible,” the NPR report continued.

“Authorities have said school district police chief Pete Arredondo, who treated the shooting as a barricade situation rather than an active shooter, caused delays in the police response,” NPR added. “McCraw indicated during his testimony that Arredondo could have transferred command of the shooting scene to another law enforcement agency … but chose not to.”

Focus on training, equipment and personnel

“Since Columbine,” Woodring told the commissioners on June 23, “we’ve always conducted active shooter training for all of our personnel.” Following the Parkland incident, he continued, “It kind of went into … hyper mode.”

In 2018, Woodring added, then-Col. Hoffman tasked him with putting together a multi-agency, active shooter training program. That affords the Sheriff’s Office and the other agencies the opportunity to analyze the effectiveness of the equipment each of them has, though — as Woodring stressed — “Communication [is] the major factor. Can we communicate effectively and efficiently?”

The second primary goal of the training, he said, is to “make sure we have the same vision and mission.”

The Sheriff’s Office’s policy for active shooter situations, he emphasized, “is clear and concise.” If shots are being fired, “You will proceed, be it one person or be it a group of deputies, toward the gunfire until that threat is neutralized. Period. … We will continue to have that stance.”

This is a still from a Sarasota Police Department video showing active shooter training conducted on June 24 at Southside Elementary School in Sarasota. Image courtesy of the Sarasota Police Department, via YouTube

The training is conducted at a school or company location, Woodring continued. This week, he noted, the first session of the year was scheduled to take place at an undisclosed location. Every agency but one — which he did not name, even after commissioners indicated concern — would participate, Woodring added.

The only agency that would not be involved had cited staffing issues, Hoffman explained, providing no further details.

Actors and the Sheriff’s Office SWAT Team are part of each session, Woodring noted.

As for year-round readiness: Woodring also explained that each deputy has a shield and a breaching kit. The latter, he said, comprises a small backpack with a ram, a halogen light and a bolt cutter. “It’s very useful; it’s very portable.”

The kits are stored in officers’ vehicles, he noted.

Additionally, Woodring said, the Sheriff’s Office is working on a plan to create a breaching wall at its training facility in South County “to teach … our men and women on how to properly open a door, break a window.”

That was another big concern in Uvalde, Woodring noted. “You can have the best trained, the best equipped deputies, but if you can’t get in the building, you’re no good to no one.”

Yet another measure in the proposed Sheriff’s Office budget for the 2023 fiscal year, he continued, is the addition of two full-time employees to the agency’s Intelligence Unit.

“Nothing related to active shooters” that Woodring has brought to him “has been cut from this budget,” Hoffman told the commissioners. “Not a nickel of it.”

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